O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is Christmas season, and Advent begins with a meditation what it means to wait for the Messiah. Christ came out of the darkness of a long time during which the Jewish people waited for a savior. For long centuries, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and Romans ruled over their land and people. In the end, nearly 1000 years had passed since David created the Kingdom of Israel and ruled. After David, his family and Israel were not loyal to God, nor were they loyal to each other, nor were they wise. In the end, Jeremiah records that, “…because of the anger of the Lordit came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them out from his presence” (Jeremiah 52:3). These are tragic words: after a long time of national unfaithfulness and sin by the leaders and the people, it finally came to the point where God had no choice but to let kingdoms far more violent and far worse rule over his people. This began a long period of waiting that lasted hundreds of years. During that time, the Jewish people looked for a national savior. When Jesus came, they were not looking for the savior God was sending them.

This forces us to ask ourselves, “What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?” Are we looking for a Messiah who will judge other people, or the bad people,  or one who is going to judge everyone, including Christians? Are we looking for a Messiah who will be the Messiah of my church, or my social group, or my race, or my political party or a Messiah for the whole world who will even judge us? A good bit of the time, I think we are looking for the former. We think that when Jesus returns, our group will finally “win”—and a good bit of popular Christianity and End-Times theorizing encourages this line of thinking.

On the surface of things, God intends to deal with corruption, greed, pride, violence, wickedness, and the like at the of time. Surely the grosser forms of corruption and unrighteousness will be dealt with by the returning Messiah. Surely as Jesus teaches all the kingdoms of the world will be placed before the court of God and brought to justice (Matthew 25:31-46). Yet, that leaves a question, “What about me?” The first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Mandeals with human nature. The second volume deals with human destiny and about the promised Kingdom of God, which is our Christmas meditation. In this volume he makes a very perceptive comment:

“The final enigma of history is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the unrighteous, but how the evil in every good and the unrighteousness of the righteous is to be overcome. [1]

In other words, the final question of history is not, “How God is going to judge other people?” The final question is, “How is God going to judge me?” Now there is a sobering thought.

In Isaiah we read, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:1-4). These verses alert the reader to the fact that the Messiah is not going to be just a king like David or even a king better than David who judges in the same manner and in the same way an earthly king judges but better.

The Savior we look for is completely righteous, completely holy, completely unlike the Kings, Premiers,  Prime Ministers, Presidents, and the like which whom we are familiar. It does not matter what my political party is, Jesus does not belong to it, nor does he judge as my favorite leader judges. Jesus judges with a kind of wisdom that is beyond this world and that has to be the Messiah for whom we are looking.

The first step towards a Merry Christmas and a spiritually enhancing trip to the Manger is getting our minds ready to receive a Messiah who is born in obscurity, lives a short life, is not successful in the way this world counts success, and then dies a terrible death on a cross crying out “Father forgive them for the know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The first step in seeing Christmas clearly is to see ourselves as those who need to be forgiven, for we too have fallen under the judgement of God.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 43.

Niebuhr 7: Christian Realism and the Doctrine of the Fall

I have decided to spend one entire week on one single facet of the The Nature and Destiny of Man—Niebuhr’s view of human fallenness and sin. [1] This may seem like an unusual idea for a Thanksgiving Week post, but I think it is appropriate, for a reminder of human sin and brokenness is also a ground to be thankful for the reality of forgiveness, grace, and renewal individually, in our families and in our nation.

In the 1930’s and during the entire runup to the Second World War, the optimism of the Social Gospel Movement and views of Liberal Protestantism faded. The Russian Revolution, which many Christian intellectuals, including Niebuhr, felt would herald in a new age of social progress ended up in the terrible tyranny and violence of Leninism and Stalinism. In Central Europe, the most advanced nation, Germany, embraced National Socialism and the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Western culture seemed caught between two horrific visions of the future.

In response, Reinhold Niebuhr made what is perhaps his most important contribution to theology and politics: He developed a political theology that reminded intellectuals of the power and reality of human sin and all of its terrible social consequences. His Christian Realism, which emphasized the inevitability of sin in individuals and social institutions alike, provided a welcome and necessary balance to the optimism of Liberal Theology, its easy partnership with Enlightenment liberal political thought, and what Niebuhr felt was the too easy conscience of modern people.

Fundamentally to remember that human beings and human societies are deeply and fundamentally flawed strikes a blow at the very heart of modern optimism and any theory of inevitable progress. Human history is not a story of necessary and inevitable progress. There is no invisible hand or historical imperative that drives human history. History is the story of the results of human activity and human decisions. Ill made decisions and unwise activity can and does destroy a culture and nation, as it did Germany in World War II. This means that human beings need to act with humility prudence, wisdom, and thoughtfulness in addressing personal and social problems.

Humanity as Inevitably Fallen

During the course of his long career, Niebuhr embraced differing theories of human sinfulness, its consequences, and remedies. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr sets out what I think is his finest and best constructed argument. Niebuhr begins by reviewing the development of the concept of sin with a look at the early church, where under the influence of Greek thought, sin was conceived as a result of the temporal frailty of the material world, of the failure of human reason to rule embodied humans, who are too often ruled by passion and impulse, and the fear of death (and by implication, injury). [2]

Niebuhr appreciates and attempts to incorporate the ancient doctrine of sin, but adds to this doctrine the insights of modernity, all within the scope of his analysis of human nature as characterized by vitality (will to power) and reason (will to order). The human race is frail and insecure, aware of its frailty and finitude. Therefore human beings are by nature tempted to overreach their situation of creatureliness. [3] Unlike Augustine, who was influenced by Platonic mind-matter dualism, Niebuhr does not attribute sin to sensuality or to human passion, sexual or otherwise. Instead, he sees the problem of sensuality under the greater rubric of the difficulty humans have in controlling their vital forces given by nature and its resultant will to power. [4]

Humanity as Inevitably Tempted

Niebuhr accepts the biblical notion of temptation and fall. He sees the story of Genesis 3 as what C.S. Lewis would call “a true myth,” that is a story that illuminates and discloses an essential aspect of human nature. [5] The story of the serpent’s temptation of Eve is the story of human susceptibility to temptation and to the human propensity to step beyond dependence on God and a relationship with God by misguided self-sufficiency and failed attempts to be like God. [6]

Reality of the Serpent

According to Christian temptation, the accuser, Satan, who is represented by the snake in the Garden, is an angel, that is a purely noetic reality. This “angel of light” existed before the human race was created, was originally created good, but fell through the attempt to usurp the place of God, the exact temptation presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden. [7] Humanity, when it cuts itself off from God and dependence on God, is vulnerable to temptation and the demonic potential inherent in human nature:

Man is both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and foreseeing. He stands at the juncture of nature and spirit; it is involved in both freedom and necessity. His sin is never the mere ignorance of his ignorance. It is always partly an effort to obscure his blindness by overestimating the degree of his sight and to obscure his insecurity by stretching his power beyond limits. [8]

The fact that human beings are tempted in sin, cannot be excused used by the frailties human nature. The root of sin is in the capacity of human vitalities and the human spirit, to intentionally break the bonds of reason end of nature. The sin in the garden was essentially a sin of the Will to Power—an attempt to become what human beings are not and cannot be.

Anxiety and Sin

Niebuhr’s fundamental insight is that human beings are a unity of matter and material vitalities and spirit and spiritual longings. The spiritual nature of the human person is conscious of its finitude, frailty, and the dangers of life. This means that human beings inevitably take steps to secure themselves from finitude, frailty, meaninglessness, danger, and especially death. [9] The result is that human beings inevitably suffer from anxiety, which is the internal precondition of sinful self-assertion. It is not sin. It is the precondition of sin. [10]

Anxiety is not irrelevant to politics. Those who govern others are not immune from the anxieties of human existence generally.

The stateman is anxious about the order and security of the nation. But he cannot express his anxiety without an admixture of anxiety about his prestige as a ruler and without assuming unduly that only the kind of order and security which he establishes is adequate for the nation’s health. [11]

In fact, this human anxiety has a heightened potential to result in sin where people possess power, just because of the power that rulers possess and the tendency to believe that their particular policy preferences are the only policy alternatives “adequate for the nation’s health. Human beings, including human leaders, are afraid to face the problem of the inevitable limits to human understanding. As a result, motivated by fear of losing power policy makers often embrace a kind of “ideological fanaticism” conscious and unconscious, as the attempt to avoid facing their ultimate ignorance in the face of serious and ongoing problems. [12]

One might see in the recent Russian invasion of the Ukraine the results of Russian anxieties about the potential for a NATO nation on the borders of “Mother Russia” and the desire to protect their access to the Black Sea and the Baltic region for political, defense, and commercial purposes. Putin’s choice of war resulted from this anxiety and the inability or unwillingness to see and seek other alternatives. [13]

Pride and Sin

Throughout the Christian tradition, it has been common to think of pride as the central sin of the human race. Niebuhr distinguishes between three kinds of pride that human beings face:

  • The Pride of Power
  • The Pride of Knowledge
  • The Pride of Virtue

Each of these prides can be reduced to some form of anxiety and fear that sits at the root of pride. The conqueror is proud of the position conquest has brought. The conquered who seeks again to defeat and supplant the conquered is motivated by pride and will-to-power to overcome defeat. The pride of the intellectual is motivated by fear of being proven less than omniscient and brilliant. The pride of the recognized moral elite is driven by the fear of the exposure of their common humanity and sin. [14]

The sins of power, knowledge and virtue are found in all people, in all places, among all religions and political groups. The Marxist, capitalist, Republican, Democrat Independent, and the like are all vulnerable, as are Protestants, Catholics, and adherents to other world religions. The sins of pride are everywhere and everywhere there is no escape short of self-recognition and the resulting humility.

The sins of pride are intimately, bound up with the sin of deceit, for pride must protect itself by dishonesty.[15] At the time he wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr was aware that education alone would not suffice to overcome the deep dishonesty that human pride creates. [16] The materialist explanations of modern Marxism (and its materialist Capitalist opponents) cannot see that the pride of the human race and the dishonesty it creates is made possible by the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence and the fear, anxiety, and foreboding that such a capacity entails. [17]

Egotism and Social Sin

It should come as no surprise that the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society should be able to apply his analysis of personal sin to human societies in their collective capacity. [18] Human beings are moral agents, and as moral agents, their lack of moral capacity impact society as a whole. On the other hand, society itself has power over individuals and impacts and forms their growth and actions. For good, or for ill, human beings are inclined to bow to the pretensions in power of authority, even when their moral scruples would dictate otherwise. [19]

Just as in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr is of the view that the group is more dangerous than the individual, because it can be more arrogant, more hypocritical, more self-centered, and more ruthless in the pursuit of its goals. [20] Thus, Niebhur describes the power of the modern nation-state as follows:

The egotism of racial, national, and socio-economic groups is most consistently expressed by the nation state because the state gives the collective impulses of the nation such instruments of power and presents the imagination of individuals with such obvious symbols of its discrete collective identity that the nation state is most able to make absolute claims for itself, to enforce those claims by power, and to give them plausibility and credibility by the majesty and panoply of its apparatus. [21]

Thus, the danger of the misuse of political power is most evident in government with its constant exposure to the reality of pride, Will-to-Power, a desire for glory, prestige and honor, and the temptation to contempt, for those who do not follow its leadership. The nation state is thus vulnerable to creating a kind of “national idolatry” that justifies and undergirds its claims on the lives and even the souls of its citizens. This was seen in a very terrible way in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but can also be seen in Western democracies.


As mentioned, at the beginning of this blog, Niebuhr is a difficult author to understand. He was also subject to changing his mind over time and perhaps misstating his ultimate conclusions. At the end of his life, for example, he was inclined to believe that education could overcome the consequences of sin. Unfortunately, if taken seriously, this commitment would undermine his great point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, for the folly, decadence and dishonesty of the human race, the anxiety, finiteness, and pride evident in human life and government cannot be undone by education alone, because deceit and dishonesty itself is present also in the process of education by finite and fallen people. Something greater than a different form of education is needed. We need salvation from outside of our fallen selves.

As far as politics is concerned, Niebuhr’s analysis stands the test of time.I  will close with one footnote from his discussion of the sin of pride, worry quotes from a writer on the French Revolution and the fanatical politicians it produced:

These profiteers were also doctrinaires and they clung to their doctrines with a greater tenacity because only thus could escape the self-contempt, which otherwise they would have felt in their secret hearts. They were under no illusion as to the life they were leading, the system of government they had established or the persons they employed to maintain it. [22]

These words could have been written about numerous politicians today.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986). All quotations will be cited hereafter “NDM” where necessary and with volume and page number.

[2] Id, vol. 1 page172-77.

[3] Id, vol. 1, page 178.

[4] Id, v0l. 1, page 180.

[5] For a deep analysis of this aspect of Lewis’ thought see, Bruce Young, “Lewis on the Gospels as True Myth” in Inklings Forever, Vol. 4  (Taylor University 2004) at https://pillars.taylor.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1091&context=inklings_forever (downloaded November 16, 2022).

[6] Id, vol.1, page 179-180. I want to emphasize that the term “true myth” is meant to say that the biblical rendition is true, that is accurately reflects the reality it is describing—human vulnerability to temptation and sin.

[7] NDM, vol.1, page 179-180.

[8] Id, vol. 1, at 181.

[9] Id, at vol. 1, page 182.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, vol. 1 at 184.

[12] Id. vol. 1 at 185. Niebuhr is speaking of human beings generally and philosophers in particular in this passage, but it is applicable to the worlds of politics and business.

[13] See, Council on Foreign Relations, “Ukraine: Conflict on the Borders of Europe and Russia” https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-crossroads-europe-and-russia (downloaded November 16, 2022). There are many very good analyses of the roots of the conflict that are much more nuanced than press reports.

[14] Id, vol. 1 at 185-203. I cannot here give due credence to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis. It is worthy of study by anyone in government, academia, or the church.

[15] Id, vol. 1 at 203-207

[16] Id, vol. 1 at 205.

[17] Id, vol. 1 at 207.

[18] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001).

[19] NDM, vol. 1, at 208.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at vol. 1, page 209.

[22] Id, at vol. 1, pages 198-199, quoting from Pierre Gaxotte, The French Revolution (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

Niebuhr 6: The Too Easy Conscience of Modern Humanity

A remarkable feature of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr is the extent to which he was capable of understanding and communicating both in the world of theology, in which he was trained, and in the world of philosophy and psychology, which he studied in a deep and profound way. The Nature and Destiny of Man reflects his study and understanding of the emergence of the modern world and the personhood it creates—a personhood that can be naive and troubled.

Vitality and Form in Human Nature

Most people understand that deep physical, mental, emotional and spiritual forces are active in any human personality. On the one hand, human beings have a remarkable capacity to act in accordance with reason and understanding. On the other hand, human beings are driven by deep, often unconscious psychological, emotional, and physical forces. In his analysis, Niebuhr refers to the capacity of human beings to act in accordance with reason as “form” and the capacity to live out of deep emotional, spiritual, and psychological forces as “vitality”.

Human beings are rooted in nature, resulting in our being guided by inherited energies, impulses and drives. These drives are embedded in creation and in the way the human person evolved. Nevertheless, human beings unlike the rest of nature, because of our unique consciousness (which Niebuhr refers to as “spirit”) are able to transcend, natural forms and redirect the vital forces of nature in a creative way. However, this very capacity allows human beings to form or deform parts of the fundamental nature with which they are endowed, with the result that human beings are inevitably capable of being sinful and destructive. [1] It is this aspect of human life that Niebuhr believes least understood in the modern world.

Historic Christianity conceives of people, as having both a spiritual nature (the “breath of God”) and a natural being (the “dust of the earth”). As a result, human beings were and are intended to live in fellowship with God, self, and others demonstrating a unity of vitality and form. Unfortunately, because of the existence of finitude, pride, foolishness and sin, human beings are incapable of such a life without grace.

In the modern world, as a result of the mind/body dualism imbedded in its origin, the schism  created in this intended unity has worsened. Human beings are often considered to be either fundamentally controlled by reason (rationalism) or controlled by nature (materialism). Rationalism tends to deprecate the significance of biological impulses as it emphasizes the mind. Materialism tends to deprecate the mind as it focuses on biological impulses. This separation is embedded in the contradictions and controversy between materialism and idealism in modern thought and is at the root of many of the political and ideological problems with modernity.

Separated from a Christian/Classical idea of humanity, there has tended to be either a stultifying order imposed on human life or a romantic revolt against all forms of order. [2] Post-Enlightenment Romanticism appreciates the importance of human vitality, but frequently fails to recognize that, cut off from human rationality and proper form, vitality does not inevitably lead to physical or emotional wholeness. [3] This mistaken view of human nature reached its philosophical high point in the work of Nietzsche, who emphasized human vital impulses and equated the human will to power with the fulfillment of human impulses for domination, creating an inevitable situation of conflict between human beings. This is at the root of the excessive violence, mental, physical, moral, and emotional inherent in contemporary, post-modern culture. [4]

Form and Vitality in Capitalism and Marxism

The rationalizing tendencies of capitalism postulates an economic “invisible hand” of the market will inevitably guide society to a situation of economic equality without the necessity of the human spirit, through law and morality, guiding such development. This leads to the alienated “Economic Man.” Marxism postulates “invisible hand” of history. This movement of history is a rationalistic element in the Marxist critique of society, with its inevitable in its emphasis upon material forces. This also leads to the alienation and desperation of those under the sway of communism.

As Niebuhr notes, despite its materialistic rationalism, there is an inherently romantic element in the Marxist critique. This romantic element is evident in its belief that human beings do act in the face of inevitable historical and economic forces. Human beings seek their own private wills, but these private wills inevitably lead to the Marxist version of the end of history due to the economic forces that the Marxist sees operating in history. [5] In the end, this view results in the elimination of the human spirit and the dreary uniformity of what we might call “Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist” culture. Thus, both Capitalism and Marxism are fundamentally flawed in their approach to politics, economics, and human life in general. They both ignore the human spirit.

The 18th century gave rise to Bourgeoisie Culture and its fundamentally naturalistic view of life. This was essentially a reaction against the Christian/Classical. With the emergence of Marxism in the 19th century, Marxist thinkers fell under the illusion that it was possible to tame the destructiveness of the human race by changing social organization alone. In the end, this failed as it was seen in the social realities of Russia in the 20th century.[6] Thus, modern culture was caught between two completely unintelligible, viewpoints, one of which ended in fascism, and the other that ended in Stalinism. Both in Western Capitalism and Marxism there is a deeply flawed and deficient view of human nature. The result is an inability to deal with the spiritual and moral depths of the human condition. We see the same forces at work in our economic and political life today.

Individuality in Modern Culture

In a Christian view, genuine personhood includes the human capacity for self-transcendence and the uniqueness of individuals. Any philosophy that denies this human capacity for transcendence and uniqueness fails to give credit to the fullness of human nature created in the image of God. In Niebuhr’s view, materialism and idealism, as conceived in the modern world, both fail on this score. The one tries to reduce the human being to material forces and fails to account for the human spirit. The second attempt to reduce everything to human rationality and fails to understand the fullness of the vitality and materiality of the human being, also a part of the human spirit. Any philosophy, that fails to respect individuals, in the end must also fail and end up in some form of totalitarianism, seen in both communism and national socialism.

Christianity was responsible for the heightened sense of individuality that gradually developed through the late Middle-ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and early Enlightenment. Christianity, like the Classical tradition it incorporated into its thinking, respected the limitations of human capacities as well. [7] Modern culture, beginning with the Renaissance, attempted to create a basis for an individuality beyond the limits set by the Christian Law of Love, and by the sheer creatureliness of the human race. For the reasons stated above, the result has been a decline in both freedom and individuality in both the East and West.

Unfortunately, an unintended result of the Reformation was the emergence of what Niebuhr calls, “the autonomous individual,” whose, right to self-expression is not bounded or restricted by faith, human limitations, or traditional morality. This notion of the autonomous individuality involves a concept of personal autonomy unknown in either the classical or Christian society.[8] This new concept of personhood begins well, unleashing human potential, but leaves individuals alone and isolated. It too has failed.

Nevertheless, a positive byproduct was the development of a theory of liberty that has characterized the modern world. At first, this theory was devoted to political and economic liberty. It was never intended to be liberty from the morality, which the optimism of the Enlightenment felt could be guaranteed by reason alone. Unfortunately, as this the modern world developed, the flaw in the modern ideal resulted in increasing antinomianism (lawlessness) because there was no emergent morality founded on reason, as indeed there could not be given the spiritual nature of human beings. The chaos of life in the West results from this deep flaw in the modern view of human beings.

Destruction of Individualism

Paradoxically, the result of the exultation of human reason and the increasing social, economic, and individual chaos resulting from an adequate view of human nature, has been and continues to be increasing restrictions upon the freedom of individuals so valued by the Enlightenment and the modern world. In the end, both the idealistic and materialistic strands of the Enlightenment, have attempted to build a structure of human existence upon a faulty view of human nature, one degrading the vital forces of the body, and the other, refusing to accept the spiritual nature of the human race. [9]

The romantic revolution of the 19th century was similarly in unable to provide a foundation for human social life. It’s emphasis upon the non-rational forces in human life, separated itself from the classical notion that reason was capable of directing the human will in a positive way. Transposed to social life, under Rousseau, they developed the theory of a “General Will of the People,” a concept further developed by Marxism. Unfortunately, the General Will of the People ignores the particular will and hopes and dreams of individuals.

The final result of this “will based personhood” is Nietzsche with his complete rebellion of the autonomous individual against all social forms and the exaltation of power. On a purely practical level, the ideal of a General Will gave rise to a host of manipulative techniques as practical power-hungry political figures, left and right, tried to manipulate public opinion to create an illusory General Will. Once again, the defects of the Enlightenment lead to a diminution of the human person and a loss of true freedom.

The Easy Conscience of the Modern Human Being

In Niebuhr’s view, a foundational problem with the post-Enlightenment society, has to do with the loss of the notion of original sin, and its substitution were by a naïve notion of essential human goodness. Historic Christianity did believe that human beings were made in the image of God, but that this image was defaced by human pride, self-centeredness, finitude and sin. [10] In the modern world, the Christian drama of salvation, with its notion of creation, fall, atonement, and restoration, was replaced with the notion that human beings are progressively capable of their own improvement and a kind of personal personally crafted salvation. The results have been devastating. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr relates:

Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man’s hysteria and fury; with evidences of his demonic, capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature, and defy the prudent cannons of rational restraint. Yet no culmination of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupt institutions, which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance, which an adequate education is about to overcome. [11]

This observation, I think, is truer than when it was first made.


This week, we have looked once more at the theoretical roots of Niebuhr’s critique of modern culture and its defects in understanding the human situation. Politically, this results in an inability to act wisely to create a sound society. At the root of problems of the modern world is the schism created both within the soul of a humanity formed on Enlightenment premises and the socio-economic political responses formed on the basis of those inadequate presuppositions, which flaws inevitably either reduced humanity to its material impulses and/or over-estimated the capacity of reason to create a viable social order.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 25-26. All quotations will be cited hereafter with volume and page number.

[2] Id, at volume 1, pages 28-29. Christianity is not the only religion to attempt to find a unity of form and vitality. In fact, it would seem to be present on all religious faiths.

[3] Id, at volume 1, page 40. These blogs have already dealt with Rousseau and Nietzsche, the two outstanding representative figures. As mentioned in the blog on Rousseau, he is in many ways a classicist in his fundamental views, less “romantic” than his followers.

[4] Id, at volume 1, page 41,

[5] Id, at volume 1, pages 43-48.

[6] Id, at volume 1, pages 50-51.

[7] Id, at volume 1, page 57.

[8] Id, at volume 1, page 61.

[9] Id, at volume 1, page69.

[10] The next blog is going to deal with Niebuhr’s view of sin, a view that changed over the years, but which sits at the foundation of his Christian realism.

[11] Id, at volume 1, pages 94-95.

Niebuhr 5: The Nature and Destiny of Man (Part 1)

Between 1938 and 1939, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was entering the final phase of his all-too-short life, Reinhold Niebuhr was in Edinburgh Scotland giving the Gifford Lectures on the nature of and destiny of the human race, the most comprehensive and fundamental account of the theological underpinnings of his Christian realism. In a previous series of blogs, we covered Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), which was a critique of liberal Protestantism as evidenced by the social gospel movement. Moral Man and Immoral Society was deeply impacted by Marxism and the promise of the Russian revolution, but by 1929, a decade before the lectures, Niebuhr had abandoned Marxism and resigned from the Socialist Party.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr advanced the thesis that a just society cannot be constructed on the basis of human altruism, even Christian altruism. The forces of self-interest are too strong. Because society is comprised of social groups with different objectives, justice, positive social change can be achieved only through an equitable use of power. [1] The role of Christian faith is not insignificant, but more or less restricted to critique of society in the light of its ideals. Thus, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr was attempting to set out a program for social change on what he perceived to be a more realistic basis than that of the Social Gospel Movement, a program that changed dramatically during his lifetime, but remained guided by the desire to see a more just society evolve.

Foundation of Christian Realism

The philosophical foundation of Niebuhr’s brand of “Christian realism lies in the conviction that both classical Greco-Roman Western ideas and the liberal Protestantism of his day underestimated the depth and pervasiveness of human finitude and sin. Thus, The Nature and Destiny of Man has as its major theme the need for a synthesis of Renaissance (classical) and Reformation (biblical) insights about the possibilities and limits of human existence, in light of Christian understanding of sin, grace and forgiveness.

The setting of the lectures could not have been more dramatic. By the time his Gifford Lectures were completed, the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were evident to wise minds in the West. Germany was in the hands of Adolf Hitler, a dangerous ideologue. The War in Europe had begun. By the time the lectures were complete, Poland had been conquered, France conquered, and the Battle of Britain begun. During some of the lectures, sirens that announced bombing raids were blowing and his audience was caught between the captivating speaker and a desire to run for safety. There could have been no better hour to remind the world of human fallenness.

Humanity as a Problem

Niebuhr began with a statement of the problem he explored in the lectures: the problem of human complexity: “Man has always been his own most vexing problem.” [2] The problem Niebuhr discerns is that the human race is both a result of the operation of nature, and subject to the laws of nature, and also a spiritual being who stands outside of nature, other human beings generally. Human beings are even capable of self-reflection, standing outside of him/herself. Human complexity results in the need to discern how the material and spiritual features of human life relate and interact. [3]

In Western civilization before the Enlightenment, two different worldviews vied for the dominance:

  • The Classical Greco Roman view of humanity; and
  • The Hebraic-Christian view of humanity.

In Niebuhr’s view, although the problem of how to understand the nature of human beings has always existed, in the modern world it is become more serious because of the inadequate solution proposed by the Enlightenment and the way a modern understanding grew up in revolt against the Judeo-Christian view..

The Classical View of Humanity

In the classical view, what made human beings unique was the existence of “Nous,” a term translated as “spirit,” but with the emphasis on the rational basis for spirit in the human race. In Aristotle Nous was seen as purely intellectual. This is not all of the story, however. Nous is the seat of consciousness and reflection in the human psyche. It includes the faculty of understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. This is to be compared with Logos, a term translated as “reason” or “word, in which the emphasis is on reason and (in the early Greeks) on the divine reason or plan imbedded in reality.

Greek philosophy tended to divide humanity into two natures, (i) an intellectual nature that reflected the divine reason and (ii) a physical nature, which was the source of human finitude and incapacity to act reasonably on all occasions. The Hebraic view was not dualistic but monist, in which the mind and the body are unitary. The Stoic view of humanity was also monist, and also pessimistic about the ability of reason to rule the human spirit. The Christian view was an adaptation of the Hebraic view of the human race impacted by its doctrine of the fall and its incorporation of Greek and Stoic ideas into its fundamental philosophy. Thus,

It must be observed that while the classical view of human nature is optimistic when compared with the Christian view (for it finds no defect in the centre of human personality) and while it has perfect confidence in the virtue of the rational person, it does not share the confidence of the moderns in the ability of human beings to be either virtuous or happy. Thus an air of melancholy hangover Greek life which stands in the sharpest contrast to the all-pervasive optimism of the now dying bourgeoisie culture,.….” [4]

The Christian View of Humanity

As indicated above, the Christian view was impacted by its interaction both with its roots in the Old Testament faith of Israel and its contact with Greek and Roman civilization. From its Hebrew origins Christianity took a fundamentally unitary view of human nature: the biblical view human beings are created as a unity of both body and spirit. [5] No account of the human condition, political or otherwise, can ignore this unity.

Nevertheless, as it being made in the image of God, the human person stands outside of itself able to judge itself and the world and to act in accordance with or against both reason and in some cases natural law. [6] Because human beings are created as a unity of nature in spirit, the human spirit enables the human race to break the harmonies of nature and, human pride and fallenness prevent human beings from being able to use the forces of nature properly, resulting in personal and social chaos. [7]

The Modern View of Humanity

With the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, both the classical and Christian view of human nature was jettisoned in favor of a dualistic view that has turned out to be unsustainable. Descartes began this dualistic move with his distinction between the human mind and physical matter. In addition, with the advent of the Modern World, human beings began to think of themselves as beings independent of God (as creator) and became thus subject to human pride. The romantic side of the Enlightenment began with the view that human beings are basically good, not fallen creatures as Scripture, tradition, and (in my view) human experience indicate. Thus, humanity became subject to unbounded pride and lost the humility inherent in Christian faith. Politically, the errors of Laisse Faire Capitalism and Marxism are founded on the victory of pride and human confidence. Speaking of Capitalism, Niebuhr puts it this way:

Modern capitalism really expresses both attitudes at the same time the spirit of capitalism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature, conceived as a treasure house of riches which will guarantee everything which might be regarded as the good life the human race will master nature but the social organization of capitalism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that nature masters man and that her preestablished harmonies will prevent the human enterprise from involving itself in any serious catastrophes…. [8]

One could easily rephrase the quotation as, “The spirit of Marxism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature conceived as a treasure house of riches which under the control of human reason will guarantee everything that might be regarded as the good life. The human race will inevitably master nature as a result of the operation of the invisible hand of economic forces operating in human history. The social organization of Marxism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that these politico-economic forces, in the form of the gradual emergence of the proletariat to power, will by a preestablished harmony prevent any serious catastrophe in human history.” In fact, both of these Enlightenment-born ideologies have resulted in the exploitation of nature and in various human catastrophes.

Niebuhr ends this discussion with a brief review of modern philosophy and the emergence of what he calls the easy consciousness of the modern person. Because human nature is seen as basically good, modernity has been an able to deal with the problem of evil. This inability is an essential part of modern thinking. It results in a doctrine of progress ungrounded in an adequate view of human nature, a view of progress that is doomed to failure. It results in a kind of worship of the human Will (characteristic of Nietzsche) and an oppressive government (characteristic of the thinking of Hobbes). The result of the emergence of a post-Christian optimism and faith in human progress has been a proliferation of interpretations of history all relying upon the gradual emergence through natural processes of a better society. Speaking in the shadow of Nazism, Niebuhr ends this discussion with a sentence with which we should all completely agree, “The fateful consequences in contemporary political life of Hobbes cynicism and Nietzsche’s nihilism are everywhere apparent.” [9] If they are not already apparent, they should be and will be.


This would seem to be a good place to end this weeks discussion. For frequent readers of this blog, the fundamental points being made by neighbor will not be new. For sometime it has been obvious that the optimistic view of the enlightenment concerning many things is not entirely correct. This week we have only begun to touch on Niebuhr’s argument, which will take several weeks to cover. Fundamentally, the history of the past 300 years shows that:

  1. Human reason is not sufficient to solve human problems of faith, morals, and polity. Human beings are not fully reasonable nor can they be made so.
  2. Human beings may be in some way “basically good” (made in the image of God, in Christian terms) but that goodness is marred by sin, anxiety, finitude, and inevitable self-centeredness.
  3. The Enlightenment notion of inevitable progress, even in its materialistic capitalist or communist formulations are false. All attempts to create anything like a perfect society have failed and created great human suffering.

Therefore, what is needed is some kind of synthesis of the Enlightenment and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian view from which the modern world emerged. This conclusion is at odds, for example, with the solution proposed by the radical members of the Critical School reviewed last week. Instead of revolution, we need a kind of tradition-bound evolution of society. This does not, however, mean that the critique of such groups can or should be ignored, for they too are part of the tradition in which we all (should) operate.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, The Gifford Lectures: Over 100 Years on Natural Theology “The Nature and Destiny of Man” at https://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/nature-and-destiny-man-human-nature (Downloaded November 2, 2022).

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 1. All quotations will be cited hereafter as NDM, volume and page number.

[3] Id, at 5.

[4] Id, at 9. I have changed Niebuhr’s use of the word “man” to humanity and rational person for modern readability.

[5] Id, at 12-13.

[6] Id, at 13-17.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 20.

[9] Id, at 25.

Teilhard De Chardin: A Materialist Christian Process Thinker

Of all the figures covered in this series of blogs, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) is perhaps the most difficult to categorize, for he is unique and truly belongs to no particular school of thought. I have included him because he is often considered with Bergson, Peirce, and Whitehead as a founder of process thought, thought. Like Whitehead and Peirce, he is interested in interpreting the implications of modern post-Darwinian thought for philosophy and theology. Unlike the others, he was a Jesuit priest, a devout Christian, but also a Paleontologist familiar not so much with logic and philosophy, as were the others, and post-Einsteinian physics, as was Whitehead, but rather familiar with geology, evolution of various species, and geology.

It is almost impossible to consider Teilhard solely as either a philosopher or a theologian, for his professional pursuits were as a paleontologist. Paleontology involves the scientific study of life of the geological past involving the analysis of plant and plants and animal fossils, including those of microscopic size, preserved in rocks. His philosophical and theological thinking was never published during his lifetime, because the nature of this writings caused the Roman Catholic Church to forbid him to lecture or publish during his lifetime. As one writer observes, this is too bad because he never had the opportunity to face creative criticism of an academic community or to write for publication with the editing and sharpening of thought the publishing process involves. [1] This is a tragedy because it may have deprived philosophy and theology of the results of the prolonged thought of a deep and profound philosopher and theologian.

As a paleontologist, unlike Whitehead who was a mathematical physicist, Teilhard was familiar with the grosser, movement of geologic formations and biological evolution over time. Thus, by trade, he was less likely to appreciate some of the finer implications of modern physics. As a priest, he was a practitioner of the kind of mystical spirituality of Ignatius Loyola which was required of him as a member of the Jesuit order. Although he was forbidden from publishing during his lifetime by the Roman Catholic Church, he remained a loyal and devout catholic to the end of his days. His mystical side is evident in his writing, which gives it an inspirational quality not necessarily useful in philosophical or theological thinking and disputes. He never founded a school of thought, and his influence today is spiritual and indirect, unlike Whitehead whose work spawned schools of theological and philosophical thought. Nevertheless, he is often quoted and acts as a spur to reflection with an influence greater than one might imagine.

Teilhard as a Materialistic and Spiritual Process Thinker

As indicated, Teilhard is often considered among the founders of modern process thought, for his work, like that of others, was motivated by the turn in scientific and philosophical thinking from working out the implications of the metaphor of the world as a machine to working out the implications of seeing the world as fundamentally evolving in a long, slow process of constant change. In the case of Teilhard, with his background in paleontology, this movement included working out the implications inherent in the long, slow evolution of the human race and of the massive geological changes embedded in the geological formations of the world. [2]

Elements of Teilhard’s thought important to political theology and philosophy:

  1. Materialism: Unlike Whitehead and most philosophers impacted by post-modern physics, who believe that energy, disturbances in a universal quantum field, or information are the ultimate reality, Teilhard worked from the assumption that the fundamental units of reality are material in nature. His view of fundamental particles was, I believe, lead astray by the materialistic implication of the word “particles.” Most physicists today would agree with this conclusion, for modern physics does not believe that “fundamental particles” are in any real sense material.
  2. Relationality: Notwithstanding his materialism, Teilhard firmly understood that all of reality is relational, and he considered his fundamental particles to be in a fundamental and universal relationship with one another. In the end, for Teilhard reality is a unity of highly integrated and interdependent parts. In this, Teilhard anticipated modern chaos theory and is not in conflict with the deeper insights of quantum physics.
  3. Socialization: Like Whitehead, Teilhard sees reality as characterized by the emergence of increasing social complexity in nature and in human society. The world and its components are social in nature. Just as the material world tends to evolve socially from fundamental particles to atoms, molecules, physical entities, and organic life, reaching its most complex form in human life, so also human beings are naturally social, and political structures are the external result of the social nature of the human race. Once again, in this ssense Teilhard is an organic thinker as is Whitehead.
  4. Energy: At the same time that Teilhard thinks from a basis in the reality of fundamental particles, he also views energy as fundamental, and sees matter as less fundamental than energy, which is the primal reality of the universe. It should be clear to readers by now that Teilhard was aware of the basic insights of quantum physics but his writings suffer from the lack of an academic environment and the interplay of other minds. In analyzing energy Teilhard speaks of two kinds of energy, physical energy and radial energy. Radial energy represented for him an immaterial, spiritual energy of order and love that is present in all reality, not unlike Peirce’s notion of an agapistic feature in reality. This “radial energy” becomes important in understanding his view of real human progress, which represents not the victory of force, but of persuasion and dialogue, which might be seen as a form of radial energy. In this sense, his views come close to Whitehead. His concept of “radial energy” is similar to the concept of “positive energy” that I speak of with respect to leadership and the principle that good leaders inject positive energy into a social group. [3]
  5. Orthogenesis. Teilhard’s system accepts evolutionary theory, but posits that the evolution of the universe, the human race, and therefore human society requires that there be an internal direction activated by radial energy within the universe and all matter, which drives the universe forward and results in the evolution of increasingly complex forms of matter. This aspect of his thought is highly controversial and debated among evolutionary biologists, with many hold that it is discredited. However, it is not fully unlike the view of Whitehead that actual occasions and enduring objects have a subject drive to emergence into the objective world.
  6. Order: For Teilhard, the order of the universe expressed in the laws of science reflected a fundamental part of the structure of reality. Implicit in the material world science studies is an immaterial world of order. In particular, Teilhard lifts up the first and second laws of thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy and Entropy) and a “Law of Complexity” by which the evolution of reality results in increasing complexity in the universe and as applied to politics, human society. The world and human society are in a gradual process of evolution and increased complexity.
  7. Convergence: Not surprisingly for a system that emphasizes process, relationality, evolution, and the emergence of complexity in the universe, Teilhard sees a principle of “Convergence” or “Centrism” at work both in nature and in society. Thus, he sees the emergence of more centralized social and political structures as reflecting this tendency at work in society. This puts Teilhard at oddes with all romantic notions that somehow human existence can be made better by a “return to nature.”
  8. Collectivism: For Teilhard, the continual emergence of complex orders in the universe results in the emergence of “Collectives.” In the area of political thought, Teilhard speaks of a gradual emerging collectivism:

The more the individual on his side associates himself in an appropriate way with other individuals the more, as an effect of synthesis does he enter deeper into his own being, become conscious of himself, and in consequence personalizes himself. And the more the collectivity on its side concentrates itself, in an appropriate way, upon elements for whose fuller personalization it is itself responsible, the more again, it is personalized and allow the Omega point to be divined. [4]

This last quote is important in understanding his notion of the way in which the world and human societies are moving into some form of collectivity or unity or what might be called “deepened society” as the complexity of human life grows. In the end, Teilhard’s views are eschatological for he sees an endpoint to human evolution at a point in time he calls the Omega Point, which is clearly a kind of eschatological move on his part.

  1. Utopianism: As the quote above indicates, there is an element of utopianism in Teilhard. He believes that the universe is headed somewhere, and that somewhere he calls the “Omega Point” that is when the universe reaches the ultimate state of differentiation, complexity, an event that he believes will be both spiritual and material and involves the ultimate realization of “Christ Consciousness” which one might associate with the complete fulfillment of the potential of the full created potential of the universe.
  2. Omega Point. It is not surprising, then, that there is a utopian element in Teilhard’s thought in which the forces of complexity and unity cause arrival at the “Omega Point” the universe reaches a conclusion. This conclusion is not, however, in universal history but at the boundary of history. This concept of Teilhard is also that point at which “Christ Consciousness” reaches its maximum potential, which is his equivalent to the second coming. His view is not in contradiction to the view often expressed in this series of blogs that the attempt to preemptively bring about an end to human history is mistaken. Nevertheless, Teilhard does believe in an eschatological end point to human history, a time in which the force of love, “the attractive element” has won its victory. This attractive element cannot involve force, and so Teilhard is unquestionably against any attempt to preemptively end history by force. [5]


Teilhard is a very complex thinker and controversial. He has been interpreted in many ways, some of which are far from orthodox Christianity. I, however, think that he needs to interpreted as committed Roman Catholic who is faithful to the church (which he refused to leave despite being deprived of the right to teach and publish) and Jesuit monk, who is trying to interpret a modern worldview in Christian terms and also trying to interpret a Christian world view in modern terms. As one interpreter put it:

Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality is thoroughly grounded in God and in the material reality of His universe, in the human body and in all aspects of human existence. He sees all humanity and every dimension and aspect of the universe as infused or divinized with the transforming presence of God and as having an inward, evolutionary movement towards God, its Omega point of fulfilment and complete transformation. [6]

In my view his work is important and to be considered by anyone interested in the intersection of religion, science, and society. As with all advanced thinkers, some of his wording is difficult to penetrate, but his work is fundamentally Christian and his intent is to overcome any division between science and religious faith by interpreting religious truth for a secular age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] MaCarthy, Teilhard De Chardin in “Makers of Modern Theology” (Waco, Texas: Word Press, 1976. Most of the reflections and biography contained in this blog are from or were inspired by that book.

[2] Teilard received his doctorate in paleontology in 1929, and his most famous paleontological work was in connection with the so called Peking Man and the connected research he did during his years in China.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Letters to Leaders (Bay Village, OH: Privately published for and by Bay Presbyterian Church).

[4]  Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy (New York: Hartcourt Inc: Harvest Books, 1970), 51.

[5] Pierre Teilhad de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959), 298-299.

[6] Adrian Hart, “A Cosmic Spirituality for a New Theology; Teilhard de Chardin’s Evolutionary Journey to Omega Christ” Following Christ, Changing Church by Association of Catholics in Ireland (Jun 2, 201) 5https://acireland.ie/a-cosmic-spirituality-for-a-new-theology-teilhard-de-chardins-evolutionary-journey-to-omega-christ/ (Downloaded August 30, 2022).